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Santa Fe councilors approve shrunken budget

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Responding to an unprecedented fiscal crisis, the Santa Fe City Council approved a new budget Wednesday night, as the city continues to assess the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the end, the budget is 18% lower than it was last year, coming in at $319 million. The General Fund declined by 10% specifically.

Mayor Alan Webber, whose office crafted the budget before it was presented to the council, said the pandemic completely disrupted the normal budget-making process that normally wraps up in the spring.

“We basically had a budget that was done,” he said. “And then the world changed.”

City officials praised the budget for including no extra furloughs or layoffs for employees beyond Sept. 4. Positions will be eliminated in certain departments, though, with employees in those positions being moved elsewhere.

Others who qualify will be offered early retirement with lump sums of $15,000, after which their positions will go unfilled.

The city also used $22 million of cash surplus to help balance the budget, along with a series of steep cuts in some city departments and divisions.

The levels of cuts vary widely across the 22 separate department and agency budgets, and all were approved by the Council Finance Committee in a series of budget hearings over the past week.

For example, the Arts and Culture Division saw its budget shrink by more than half, while Human Resources saw just a 2% decrease. The budgets for the Recreation and Economic Divisions decreased by around 25%.

Councilor Roman Abeyta, head of the Finance Committee, said a 2% increase to Community Services was to ensure that essential services are provided during the pandemic.

The passage of the budget comes more than two months after Webber announced a projected $100 million budget shortfall for the city as the coronavirus devastated much of Santa Fe’s tourism-based economy.

Since the fiscal crisis started, the city has issued two rounds of furloughs for city employees, the first of which was criticized for disproportionately impacting lower-wage workers.

The projection later shrunk to $82 million once the Mayor’s Office announced the proposed budget on July 13. Included with the budget announcement was a plan to reorganize much of the city’s government, with many divisions being consolidated into three new departments: Community Engagement, Community Development, and Community Health and Safety.

While the reorganization will not be voted on until late August, many were critical of how it appeared to impact the budget-planning process.

“The budget was presented as if the reorganization had already happened,” Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler said during the meeting.

City Attorney Erin McSherry said the council can make adjustments if the budget does not reflect the reorganization. In a phone interview, Abeyta disagreed that the budget currently reflects the proposed reorganization.

Union representatives voiced similar concerns, specifically those representing some city employees and firefighters.

“This is where the confusion sets in, that the city is willing to create more management positions rather than filling current positions within our fire department,” said Adan Lopez, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2059.

And while this budget will be submitted to the state Department of Finance and Administration just days before the deadline, the budget-making process will continue. The city plans to hold quarterly meetings to adjust the budget when the pandemic’s effect on revenues is fully realized.

“The budget this year is as much a process as it is a plan,” Webber said.

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